Talking about “Iconic Books” in the Terminology of Book History
Keywords:book history, iconic books, descriptive bibliography, material culture, books, terminology
“The book” in its many guises today provides fertile ground for the study of the many disciplines and professions in which it has played a central part. Long recognized as significant as a carrier of text, the book has lately been seen also as an example of material culture. A consideration of the book’s physical properties and uses can provide new insights into the practices and unarticulated beliefs of a cultural community. Here we consider the potential of “the book” for insights into the study of religion. The focus is on “iconic” books, a subset of books that seems intuitively recognizable as a genre, but is variously understood by the writers of the essays in this collection. It is not only the nature of iconicity that begs for definition here, but also, more specifically, the specific aspects of “the book” that cause it to be recognized as iconic. Does its iconicity spring, for example, from the beauty of the copy? The primacy of the edition and printing? The provenance of the object? As “the book” gains attention, the subject cries out for specific, stable, shared terminology to allow meaningful discussion of its elements across disciplines and fields. Such terminology can be found in the field of Book History, a discipline that has its roots in the world of Gutenberg and continues to flourish in the internet age. This paper discusses terminology. It explores various approaches to defining “iconic,” it traces the evolution of the terminology of book history, and it presents a sample of particularly pertinent terms from that discipline to clarify future discussions of aspects of an “iconic book.”
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